Speak the Truth, Tell a Story | Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (Role 1: Interpretive)

This is the second installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007.  Click here to read the previous essay, Three Roles of an Antiwar Core


The first primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to attach meaning to unfolding events and help shape common understandings – to interpret reality based on the patterns we observe.

Imperialism, for example, is an observable pattern where the government of one country extends its dominance over other countries or colonies to increase its own wealth and power. Progressives see US military interventions, political and economic pressuring, and even cultural exports through the lens of a story of US imperialism. This story helps us to understand the situation.

Stories can expose underlying motives. They turn the actors into types of characters: protagonists and antagonists, victims, villains, heroes, and so on. Stories connect events, and strip them of their randomness and neutrality. Stories place judgment.

But stories can also obscure motives and distort reality. For example, there is another story used to explain the various manifestations of the US government’s meddling in the world. The story of US benevolence has deep roots in the culture, relying heavily on popular accounts of World War I and, especially, World War II. This story assumes that our government is genuinely interested in spreading freedom, justice and democracy (rather than undermining and overthrowing it).

Different stories produce different lessons from the same set of events. Consider the following example. We find out that Rosanna got laid off. Then that Joe got laid off too. Turns out that the local factory fired many workers. It moved much of its production overseas, where it can pay the workers far less than their American counterparts. Rosanna and Joe are going to be hard up, and they know it. But what else do they know? How do they assemble these events, experiences and observations in their heads? What stories help them and others to explain their situation?

There are multiple options. Maybe the blame rests with the unions that are forcing companies to move over- seas because they can’t compete here. Maybe it was fate, or the mysterious will of God. Maybe the workers who got fired just weren’t working as hard as those who kept their jobs. Or, of course, maybe the company is greedy. Maybe the system is flawed. Maybe the workers need to organize. Or maybe the company’s greed is just the natural order of things, and there’s nothing anyone could ever do to stop it anyway.

People do not just let facts stand on their own. We interpret them. We are constantly assimilating experiences, events and information into narratives we carry with us. These stories are not neutral. They have consequences. They affect behavior. Rosanna and Joe’s next move might be to join a union, or it might be to scab at the factory in the next town over. Their decisions will be shaped by the stories they tell themselves about their situation.

Bread and butter needs (and other material incentives) affect such choices too. So do the specific opportunities that come our way. But neither of these is deterministic. Humans are thinking creatures. And we think in narrative. Our stories, our beliefs, our assumptions hold enormous power in our lives.

Dominant Narratives

The smartMeme Strategy and Training Project1 explains the basic psychological function of narrative: “Story is a lens through which we process the information we encounter: cultural, emotional, experiential, political… We remember our lived experiences by converting them to narrative and integrating them into our personal and collective web of stories.”2 Through narrative we explain the world, including our place in it. Key to understanding the power of narrative is that, more than we tell stories, “stories tell us” what to think and do.

The importance of narrative as a cultural, economic and political force should not be underestimated. Its value is certainly not questioned by those in power, evidenced by a public relations industry in the US measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In a society where wealth and power is held as disproportionately as ours, the power-holders will project a dominant narrative onto the populace to both legitimize and obscure this disparity and political order. While the singular term dominant narrative can be helpful conceptually, the reality of it is multilayered; an accumulation of stories spun by some- times competing elites, tailored to fit specific agendas, consumed and internalized by the public – though this last critical step is not an inevitability.

It comes as no surprise that those who wield disproportionate power in controlling wealth and shaping policy also wield comparably disproportionate power in shaping the grand narratives people rely on to make sense of the world. Still, it is the beginning of a potentially useful analysis: that dominant narratives often do not reflect the authentic will of the people, but rather prescribe it.  The Bush Administration’s story about the Iraq War is a control narrative that was designed to manufacture and corral the people’s will, rather than to empower people to discover and act on their own authentic will. Following 9/11 politicians and pundits opportunistically punctuated a powerful fear-based control narrative, coining and parroting phrases like “War on Terror,” “Homeland Security,” “Axis of Evil,” and so on. These phrases were designed to tell a story that would help push agendas, preclude alternatives or dissent, and consolidate power. False dichotomies are a hallmark of fear-based control narratives. For example: “You’re with either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In the thick of the political climate of fear that followed 9/11, to argue with this statement was to be relegated to the latter of the two options – with the terrorists.

9/11 jostled Americans’ anxieties like a rock on a hornets’ nest. Many people struggled to make sense of the attacks, working through feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The Bush Administration quickly wove together a story to explain the attacks in ways that would channel people’s emotions and draw lessons favorable to the neo-cons’ ambitious agenda. Their story was first and foremost about why we must go to war. They used classic narrative devices; America was the victim, al Queda the clear villain. The story started on what would have been a pleasant Tuesday morning in September, with America waking up to a new day, only to be savagely surprise-attacked by a villain so evil that his only rationale was a rabid hatred of freedom itself. He might have destroyed freedom and “our way of life” entirely, unless…

In stepped our hero, George W. Bush, already resolute while most Americans were still reeling. He knew who did it, and he knew what he was going to do to them. The only thing America could do in this story was to fight back, to not be a victim. These colors don’t run! The story demanded that we go to war. It precluded any other options.

While fear has been the cornerstone of the Bush Administration’s narrative strategy, it is certainly not the only value they exploit. To effectively use narrative to control, elites must appeal to positive values as well: freedom, justice, democracy, etc.3 Of course delivering substantively on these values tends to interfere with their primary goal of staying (and growing more) rich and powerful. So they co-opt the values. They take positive popular themes, mix them up, and feed a distorted version back to us.

Effective elites feed their agenda to the populace using common language and appealing to common values. It wouldn’t work if they were to invent their own vocabulary to explain it, and try to force it down people’s throats. They know better than to directly battle the culture-they leave that for the fundamentalists-if they can find a way to ride it instead. They recognize the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of popular culture.

This doesn’t mean that politicians are “in touch” with common people. They don’t need to be. That’s what PR firms, think tanks and speechwriters are for. Elites’ access to this vast industry of cynical sugar-coaters is limited only by the dollar figure they cough up. (And they’re willing to pay a pretty penny, knowing how a spoonful of sugar helps the big fat tax break for the extremely rich go down.)

Their Story, Our Story

The antiwar movement must not be too proud or purist to learn a few things from our opponents, even though their techniques repulse us. Karl Rove and company are essentially doing a perverted version of something all good organizers must do. They are listening (albeit through hired intermediaries) to common people, weaving their words and sentiments into a meaningful story, and feeding it back to them.4

There are important differences between Mr. Rove’s storytelling technique and what the antiwar movement should be doing. Foundationally, there is the difference in motive: the antiwar movement genuinely wants to amplify the truth-for objective facts to be widely known- while the Bush Administration has a vested interest in hiding facts, withholding information, and silencing and obscuring truth. This fundamental difference between their ends and ours creates corresponding differences between their means and ours. To put it simply, they tell stories to deceive and control, while we should tell stories to inform and inspire. As a result the stories themselves and the ways in which they are told, tend to be qualitatively different. Their storytelling appeals primarily to fear and co-opts positive values in order to achieve public acquiescence; the stories we tell should appeal genuinely to positive values, conscience and reason in order to promote civic engagement. Their stories prescribe the public will; the stories we tell should encourage people to formulate their own opinions. Their stories limit options and close debate; the stories we tell should open broader dialogue and possibilities.

Again, different stories promote different kinds of actions. In short, the “action” the Bush Administration wishes to inspire is for everyone to sit down and shut up.  There is, however, something that the antiwar movement should strive to share with Karl Rove: a recognition that people think with stories, and a strategy to accompany this recognition. We cannot afford to give our opponents a monopoly on story-based strategy.

Changing the Story

SmartMeme advocates a “narrative analysis of power,” meaning that the powerful project a control narrative – a story that tells people what to do, and the limits of what is possible – and that change agents must work to “change the story.”

The antiwar movement must do much more than interpret events for the sake of its own understanding and analysis; we must tell a persuasive story to the broader society, especially to the constituencies that we aim to organize. And convincing people to agree with us is only a first step. A large majority of Americans already share our opposition to the Iraq War. This hasn’t translated into a mass movement powerful enough to end the war. We need to tell stories that activate – stories that people can see themselves stepping into.

For many people to see themselves stepping into the antiwar movement, we first have to overcome negative stories about us. We have to grapple with the fact that, for a substantial portion of the population, activism itself has been negatively branded. That is to say that the term and concept of activism has been so maligned that it now conjures negative associations in many people’s mind.

Corporations are very concerned about their brand image; the antiwar movement should be too. Brand image, in the corporate world, refers to the stories, meanings, memories and emotions that people associate with a particular company. A company with a tarnished brand image struggles to sell product.

Change agents need to recognize how negative stories and stereotypes about us are used to inoculate society against even hearing our message, let alone taking action or joining our ranks. We have to create new stories in the culture about civic engagement and social movement. We have to break our own monopoly over the issues and values that we struggle for, as well as the means by which we struggle. As long as activism is all about activists-a niche role, a type of person-it will remain an ineffectual undertaking of a few.

Too often we play into the negative stereotypes. There is a tendency within large currents of the movement to project ourselves as outsiders, as defectors (read “traitors”), as different and distinct (read “better”). We talk disdainfully about society. We talk about America as if we were not part of it. This approach suits our opponents very well. In fact, whenever and wherever people start to effectively challenge power, the textbook counter-attack is to malign change agents as outsiders. When we willingly identify and project ourselves as just that, we cooperate with our opponents’ strategy to inoculate society against progressive change. We forfeit the possibility of building a popular movement. Ultimately, our goal is to change destructive and limiting assumptions long-held in the mainstream culture. We have to “change the story” but in order to do so we must approach popular cultural narratives as insiders, not outsiders.

Too often activists engage in narrative attack. Narrative attack means attacking one narrative or worldview from the point of view of a different one. For example, “Amerikkka is NOT a democracy!” may seem like a coherent statement to the person holding a sign that bears this message. They may be aiming to undermine the story of “America, the great nation,” the “land of opportunity,” etc. because they see these claims as hypocritical given the United States’ history of genocide, slavery and imperialism. This is not to dispute the sign-holder’s politics, but it is to say that their presentation will not be well received by many people who have mostly positive associations with the word America. Narrative attack can be subtle too. But it characteristically involves some form of disparaging or disassociating from something that someone else values. Narrative attack fortifies people’s defenses and rarely changes minds.

When activists engage in narrative attack, it is usually against a mainstream narrative from the perspective of a marginalized worldview. It’s not that we should abandon our perspective or politics – not in the least. The problem is not our interpretation of reality: the alternative narratives we collectively construct to explain unfolding events and power relationships. The problem is the chasm between our alternative narratives and prevailing narratives in the culture. Again, change agents must do much more than interpret reality for our own understanding; we must tell a persuasive story to the broader society, especially to the constituencies we aim to organize. We cannot expect people to have a clue as to what we’re talking about-much less to join our cause-when we make critiques using our own internal rhetoric, in the language and logic of our self-understood alternative narratives. It doesn’t matter how precise or correct we may believe our analysis to be, if it’s incoherent to a broader audience. If we don’t use common language that speaks to people’s common values, we will be seen as outsiders.

Narrative Insurgency

If we are to transform cultural meanings, we need to think not in terms of attacking culture from the outside,5 but rather in terms of homegrown insurgency, indigenous to the culture. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative. To effectively play an interpretive role, antiwar change agents have to be narrative insurgents, changing the culture from the inside out. (With the term narrative insurgency we are stressing that new meanings must rise up within existing cultural narratives – a nonviolent and thoroughly political process.)

Cultural narratives (e.g. America: Beacon of Liberty, Purveyor of Democracy) are characteristically complex, often rife with contradictions, and vary from one person to the next. Narrative insurgents do not reject narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible-the allied and neutral components-and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts in the given community. Because direct confrontation tends to polarize people and fortify their positions, the narrative insurgent is cautious, selective and strategic about when to engage in it, often preferring to dance around a narrative’s hostile components rather than engage these head-on. The strategy here is to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework. The old narrative is often never explicitly rejected; it just fades. Feeding the allied components gives the transitioning individual, group or society something to hold onto through the transition process.

Numerous studies have shown that children learn best through positive reinforcement; that is, being encouraged in what they are doing well rather than rebuked for their errors and shortcomings. Why would adults be any different? No one wants to hear that they’re doing some- thing wrong or that they’re not doing enough. People are similarly turned off when they feel the symbols and institutions that they identify with are being maligned (e.g. the flag, the military, America, religion, etc.). Too often change agents relate to people in ways that can trigger feelings of guilt or defensiveness. While guilt can occasionally motivate positive changes in people, it is not a sustainable motivating force. In the long-term, and often in the short-term too, guilt triggers more resentment than it inspires change. Besides, guilt is a tool of social control, not of liberation. It is only effectively wielded when accompanied by the threat of social penalties such as ostracism. For example, if a church hierarchy uses guilt as part of a strategy to control its members’ sexuality, it can do so to the degree that it holds power over their lives. Generally organizers and activists don’t possess this kind of power. (Nor do we want it.) If we make people we talk to feel guilty or defensive, they’re likely to avoid us and talk to other people instead.

An effective narrative insurgent rejects guilt as a manipulative and generally unhelpful tool. S/he seeks to avoid triggering feelings of guilt and shame in the people around her (with the occasional exception of targeted opponents), regardless of whether s/ he believes their actions or inactions warrant such feelings. Instead s/he utilizes positive reinforcement with an analysis of confirmatory bias. SmartMeme summarizes the concept of confirmatory bias as “people’s habit of screening information based on their own beliefs. In other words, people are much more likely to believe something that reinforces their existing opinions and values than to accept information that challenges their beliefs.”6

The narrative insurgent plays with ambiguity, resists labeling attempts, and does not seek to nail others to rigid positions. S/he is not overly preoccupied with the correctness of people’s political analysis. S/he herself did not arrive at her political analysis overnight, and thus recognizes that the development of analysis is a process that cannot be deposited into people’s heads. It comes through experiences and dialogue and is a self-determined process. The organizer’s role then is not so much to provide the most correct political line, but rather to create cultural and relational space wherein people have opportunity to reflect critically on shared experiences and develop and arrive at their analyses together. This is particularly important given that those who identify as activists and organizers, because we have devoted the mental resources to it, tend to have more developed political analyses than the people we may be trying to engage, and we tend to articulate it in a very specific rhetoric. Our analysis then, if laid out on the table all at once, is likely to alienate us from people we want to engage.

Again, most of us who have a developed political analysis did not arrive at it overnight, and we cannot expect to be able to walk others through a logical proof in one sitting. We can play an important role in helping people to reflect dialogically on their own experiences, but we cannot give them our experiences. We have to be patient enough to allow them to make mistakes, harbor bad ideas, etc. And, in creating space for this, we may actually learn from them. Maybe it is we who are making the mistake or harboring the bad idea? The teacher always has some- thing to learn, and the learner always has something to teach. This is essential to any true dialogue.

While strategy is important, a true narrative insurgent is more than a calculating tactician. Their primary motivations should always be love and compassion. As Che Guevara said, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love.” If change agents do not love the people and communities they are engaging, then narrative insurgency for them will likely be an unsuccessful attempt to manipulate people to further an agenda. It is not enough for that agenda to be human liberation or even love itself – in the abstract. A change agent must love the specific people and communities s/he engages. S/he must value each relationship in its own right. While s/he will often disagree with others’ opinions, s/he still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. S/he is forgiving toward their shortcomings. S/he is always rooting for them, always finding something worthy of praise, even when it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. As such, narrative insurgency begins to come naturally; s/he does not have to feign identification with the allied and neutral components within the narrative, within the culture. Narrative insurgency is not Machiavellian. A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for them. S/he does not use people as pawns, as passive props or objects. S/he encourages people to realize their own empowerment.

Psychic Breaks

We have to honor that people are complex beings who simultaneously hold multiple beliefs. Sometimes events put these beliefs into conflict with each other, which can threaten to unravel long-held assumptions.  Take someone who is in the armed forces and believes strongly in the military as an institution. They believe that going to war is at times a necessary way to solve problems. They believe in US benevolence and the importance of patriotism. Coming from a working class background, they believe in hard work and are more willing to trust other people who work for a living. They believe in fairness and the importance of family. They are critical of corruption and often distrustful of politicians. Someone may hold all of these beliefs and see no contradiction between them. But what happens when the corrupt politicians whom they distrust start a war that they must fight? While they as an individual may have good intentions toward other people around the world, will the story of US benevolence hold up when they can’t trust their own government? Before, patriotism had implied obedience to authority, but now might it not require something else instead?

A psychic break7 occurs when people’s sense of reality changes so dramatically that it cannot adequately be assimilated into a narrative or belief system. Long-held assumptions and beliefs become untenable, and the individual, group or society becomes more open to alternate interpretations of reality, to new beliefs.

Patrick Reinsborough of smartMeme explains, “A mass psychic break is a point where you can predict a significant percentage of society is going to have their basic assumptions… challenged by events.”8

Mass psychic breaks can be key opportunities for social movements to advance progressive values and to grow. These contexts hold the peak potential to reach out to others, to challenge long-held assumptions in the culture, and to transform grand narratives. Widespread disillusionment about the Iraq War is catalyzing a mass psychic break, opening new possible directions for popular beliefs. Antiwar change agents have a window.

Many people initially went along with the invasion because they were predisposed to believe the Bush Administration’s control narrative. But Bush’s story was a lie. And the nature of lies is to breed more lies. Soon you have lie upon lie upon lie – a new lie to answer every question, doubt or contradiction. Some lies manage to continue for many years. But sometimes the evidence becomes too compelling; the lie becomes untenable. Part of the lie is that we can trust the liar, but once they have been discredited then everything they ever said becomes suspect. People tend to be attached to their beliefs and assumptions, but if an important one is shattered, more may fall like dominos. Lies build upon each other, and if a cornerstone is removed, the whole control narrative structure can come crashing down.

However, beliefs don’t die easily, especially when held for a lifetime or for generations. People often find ways to resurrect their worldview once the storm has passed. You can see this already with the emerging story of the “Worst President Ever!” While George W. Bush may very well deserve this title, still, the danger of this story is that it can allow for key negative assumptions-like the story of US benevolence-to go unchallenged. Bush is merely an aberration to an otherwise good system. On the other hand, if someone who was never willing to question US foreign policy at all is now at least willing to question George W. Bush’s foreign policy, then we have an opening.  It is up to us to take it.


We have argued in this essay that a primary role of change agents is to interpret reality. We have described how elites project their own self-legitimizing interpretation of reality onto society through dominant narratives. We have argued that their narratives speak primarily to fear while co-opting positive values, and that our narratives must speak genuinely to people’s positive values. We have argued that change agents must overcome negative stereotypes about themselves, and we have introduced narrative insurgency as a way of thinking about engaging the culture as insiders. Finally, we have described the current political context as a psychic break, wherein antiwar change agents have new opportunities to challenge dominant assumptions and to grow our movement.

end notes:

  1. smartmeme.org
  2. From an unpublished smartMeme document.
  3. A favorite psychological tactic of the Bush Administration has been to alternate between appeals to people’s positive values and their fear emotions: “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction…We’re liberating the Iraqi People…We’re fighting the terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here…We’re spreading democracy in the Middle East…”
  4. If it’s too much to stomach learning something from the likes of Mr. Rove, fortunately we have good examples of this concept in progressive movements, perhaps especially from the late popular educators Paulo Freire and Miles Horton who consistently stressed listening to common people and feeding their own words back to them as part of an empowering process of dialogue. The authors recommend Horton’s “The Long Haul” and Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
  5. like an invading army, but without power.
  6. smartMeme
  7. ibid
  8. Patrick Reinsborough. Building a Real Democracy in the Age of Empire (Lumpen Magazine, 2004)

Click here for the next essay: Articulating a Strategy

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